Augusta attractive to the homeless

Under the 13th Street bridge, with the noise of cars barreling overhead and underneath a sign warning that poisonous snakes breed in the area, some of Augusta's homeless bed down for the night.

It's also the view Chris Shelton has from his backyard.

From his home in Waters Edge neighborhood on the Savannah River, Shelton said, he has a firsthand view of Augusta's homeless population. Across a few river rocks and over a chain-link fence rests his deck and small playground for his girlfriend's children.

With an economy still struggling to recover from the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, local officials who work with the homeless say the have-nots are growing.

Lavond Reynolds, the men's director for Garden City Rescue Mission on Fenwick Street, said the homeless population is the highest he has seen in the past five years.

The mission is averaging about 60 men per night, and Reynolds said because of the heat, they won't turn anyone away right now.

"Even if we run out of beds we will put them on the floor," he said.

From his vantage point at the shelter, Reynolds sees a population that is dealing with the dual problems of a down economy -- particularly in the construction sector -- and long waits at the area's VA medical centers. He estimates that up to 25 percent of the area's homeless population are veterans -- many of whom who must wait for weeks, or even months, for treatment at the local medical centers.

Many of those men and women end up on the streets, he said. There is also an aging group of men who can't receive Social Security yet, haven't been retrained, and are "lost in the population."

Obtaining accurate numbers on Augusta's homeless population is difficult. Agencies count them differently. The city hasn't done a homeless count since January 2009, when it found 551 people in shelters. Even that is just a "snapshot," not a true census, city officials say.

There were 1,152 homeless people using the services of Augusta's Housing and Community Development Department from January to June 30, according to a department report. That is down by about 71 people compared with the first half of 2009.

The report, however, measures only people who come for services from the department's partners -- such as the Salvation Army and the Augusta Urban Ministries -- and is by no means an exact number, according to Vicki Johnson, the department's community development manager.

"There are so many homeless that just fall through the cracks," said Johnson, whose office distributes federal money to shelters and homeless organizations in the area.

Philip Bishop, the men's director for the Salvation Army, said part of the increase is because Central State Hospital in Milledgeville, Ga., closed its long-term facility devoted to patients requiring mental health services this year.

The closing came after concerns arose about the safety of patients and environmental problems at the facility. Many of those patients were relocated to community facilities, including about 30 patients who were sent to East Central Regional Hospital in Augusta, according to a news release by the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Augusta.

Then there is the job market. For people with few skills, the lack of construction work is a serious problem.

Still, Bishop said the homeless population in Augusta seems to stay fairly steady from year to year. People are attracted to the area because of the many support services offered, the medical community, the relatively mild weather and the potential to find work.

"People come down here and they get stuck," Bishop said.

Johnson seems to agree.

Compared with the surrounding area, Augusta has a high concentration of soup kitchens, shelters and hospitals all within walking distance of one another.

"It is a huge factor," Johnson said. "Homeless people come to Augusta; they can get health care here. They can get food here."

She said the real problem, though, is lack of affordable housing. It's a myth that all homeless are unemployed. Many work low-paying jobs and simply cannot pay for housing.

"If you cannot afford the housing, you have no choice but being homeless," she said.

On a recent weekday, 61-year-old Lugene Anderson waited outside the Salvation Army on Greene Street for Augusta Technical College students to begin giving free haircuts. Lugene is an Augusta native and a Vietnam veteran. He once worked in quality control for Plant Vogtle and PCS Nitrogen Inc. before losing his job and succumbing to drugs and alcohol. He sports a blue "Jesus is my boss" cap and white stubble on his chin and says he is lucky compared with some of the guys: He collects a disability check -- which he uses to pay the $5 a night fee imposed at the Salvation Army for people who stay more than eight nights -- and he has health care through the VA hospital.

Anderson's friend, 49-year-old Jerry Rivers, from Warrenton, Ga., rolls up in a wheelchair -- his right leg gone from the knee because of a tree-cutting accident. Rivers said he came to Augusta because his social worker said he could get put into a Salvation Army drug and alcohol rehab program. That never happened. Now, Rivers has lived on the streets for seven months.

He stays at the shelter when he can and rolls his chair to a shady spot in the daytime to stay out of the heat. He needs another surgery on his leg soon but is worried about finding the money to pay for a hotel room where he can spend a few weeks recuperating.

Whether it's a result of an increase in homelessness in Augusta or simply desperation, Richmond County sheriff's deputies said they've received more reports recently of homeless panhandlers in the downtown area.

Deputy Shane Bailey said he wouldn't describe them as aggressive, but certainly more persistent.

Bailey has worked Broad Street for more than three years. He said most of the panhandlers he has encountered over the past month have blamed their persistence on unemployment.

"Most of the ones that I've talked to, is because they are out of work -- laid off with no means of income," Bailey said.

Amanda McDougald, 27, said she has witnessed it firsthand.

McDougald, a research associate for the Georgia Prevention Institute, was having dinner on the patio at the Pizza Joint a few weeks ago when a man walked up to her table and begged for a few dollars so he could get a bed at the Salvation Army.

McDougald said she usually doesn't give money to beggars but felt bad because it had begun to rain. She checked her wallet and found just $2 inside. She gave him $1. When the man saw that, he became more forceful and demanded she give him one more dollar.

"Basically, he was yelling and really angry about it and the owners came out and told him to go," she said.

The man then asked the very people kicking him out of the restaurant for money.

A week later, she was back at the restaurant and it happened again.

Sheriff's Lt. Scott Gay said his office has been receiving more calls from downtown property owners -- including Mellow Mushroom and Pizza Joint -- complaining about panhandlers on their property.

He said they have made some arrests for panhandling and continue to monitor the downtown area. Gay said often the homeless are transient, traveling from place to place to find areas that can address their needs.

"I think that they stay for a little bit then they move on," he said. "Homeless folks, they know how to network. They know good places to come and go."

Back at Shelton's home in the shadow of the 13th Street bridge, he said he's concerned that Augusta has become a magnet for the homeless.

Shelton said the men and women under the bridge don't necessarily bother him, but he worries about the attractiveness of Augusta as a city with so many of the destitute living wherever they can.

He estimates that there are sometimes as many as eight people staying under the bridge at one time. Shelton said that he wants to get a fence put up to block people from sleeping there but that he's been given the "runaround" by state and local officials who refer him to someone else every time he calls.

"No one wants to take ownership of it," he said.

After calling Augusta Commission member Matt Aitken, Shelton said, he was directed to officials at the Georgia Department of Transportation because the state owns the bridge.

In an e-mail, DOT Area Engineer Mike Keene said a fence wasn't feasible under the bridge because it would have to go all the way into the water to be effective at keeping people out. He said having it in the water was against their regulations and would do nothing to deter squatters.

Shelton said he also worries about the safety of his girlfriend's children, who play just a few feet away from where two men began a drug deal last week that Richmond County deputies said ended with one of them getting stabbed in the overgrown remains of the Augusta Golf and Gardens.

"Sometimes I don't want them out playing," he said. "I worry."

Family moves out of shelter